A film review by Craig J. Koban September 17, 2010

Rank:  #23


2010, PG-13, 102 mins.


Felix Bush: Robert Duvall / Mattie: Sissy Spacek / Frank: Quinn Bill Murray / Buddy: Lucas Black / Rev. Jackson: Bil Cobbs / Rev. Horton: Gerald McRaney

Directed by Aaron Schneider / Written by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, from a story by Provenzano and Scott Seeke

GET LOW has been a bit narrowly defined as a Depression-era comedy.  The film has a sly and acerbic edge to it, for sure, but it has a disheartening undercurrent of mystery, dread, and sadness.  It concerns a man that committed a heinous act that he deeply regretted, which resulted in him secluding himself away from the public in a lonely self-imposed imprisonment within the tiny and dilapidated confines of his backwoods cottage.  He has no family, no real friends, let alone modest acquaintances, and has let himself devolve into a forty-plus year banishment where he has severed all forms of basic human connections.  Even though GET LOW is certainly amusing throughout, the film is most certainly laced with soulful melancholy and tragedy.


The hermit in question is Felix Bush, and he is played by the great Robert Duvall in what I believe his finest screen performance since THE APOSTLE.   Duvall creates a very tricky dichotomy with what could have been a one-note ol’ coot/recluse role: he manages to create a deeply introverted figure that is not without eccentric charm and a sense of playful whimsy, but he also evokes a man that has lived a lonesome life of inner gloom and despondency where a terrible action from his checkered past has haunted him for decades.  Watching Duvall carefully and unassumingly inhabit this enigmatic, but always authentic and flawed character reminded me of one of his earliest screen roles in 1962’s TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD where he also portrayed an outsider, Boo Radley.  His career, now with GET LOW, is compellingly coming full circle.


After a prologue set in a non-specific point in the past, GET LOW flash forwards, so to speak, to the late 1930’s and Felix - all alone, if you exclude his mule – has learned of the sudden death of an old friend, which gives him an impetus to go ahead with a truly odd and macabre plan of his own.  He goes into town on a very rare visit (the townsfolk treat him with an aggressive amount of fear and hostility) in order to see the town undertaker, Frank Quinn, who is play by Bill Murray in one of those quintessentially sardonic Murray-esque performances of quiet modulation and introverted charm where the actor gets the broadest of laughs with the most minute of facial expressions and body gestures.  If there is a prime reason to see GET LOW than it would be to see the likes of Duvall and Murray occupy the same frame.  A pleasure, indeed.


Felix approaches Frank and his young greenhorn protégé, Buddy (Lucas Black, showing a disciplined and restrained poise) with his very peculiar proposition: he would like the funeral pallor to not just simply help him with “getting low” six feet under, but he also wants them to plan an elaborate funeral “party” where all the townsfolk can attend…while he’s still alive.  Now, Frank and his partner naturally respond that funerals are for…uh…deceased people, but Felix insists that the party be thrown while he is very much alive.  He even has elaborate plans for a burial lot, a headstone, a farewell address to the citizens that despise him, and even a specific choice of pastor that will serve as the MC.  Now, Frank wisely deduces that it will be exceedingly difficult for them to attract any audience at all, but the rascally old trickster that is Felix has an ace up his sleeve: he announces on a radio talk show that he will set up a lottery that will have all of his valuable land – sans mule – raffled to the winner.   Seeing Murray’s duplicitous and weasel-minded businessman react to the news gives the film one of its many large laughs.  



The film then follows the plans of Felix and the funeral pallor to see his aspirations of a end-of-life party to successful fruition while he’s still alive, but the journey towards it is beset with roadblocks, both literal and emotional.  The first setback involves an old flame of Felix’s named Mattie (the sublime and pitch perfect Sissy Spacek) that once had romantic feelings for Felix several years before.  They both reacquaint themselves, but before they can get close again one aspect of his life – revealed plainly with just an old photograph that he has on his cottage wall above his bed – sends Mattie into a tailspin of panic-stricken hurt and condemnation of Felix after she sees it.  Then there is Felix’s choice of pastors to head the ceremony, Rev. Charlie Jackson (a wonderful Bill Cobbs, whose own scene-stealing deadpan delivery holds its own against Murray’s) that steadfastly refuses to participate…unless Felix pleads for God’s forgiveness ASAP for a past misdeed.  Felix sees this as a Catch-22, mostly because he wishes to use the actual party itself as a form of emotional cleansing where he will reveal all of his past indiscretions.  Even further exacerbating Felix' plan is the fact that he is getting sicker by the day and may die before his...ahem...funeral.


Part of the pleasure of GET LOW is how much it trusts the audiences to discover all of the secrets of Felix’s life.  The screenwriters, Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, wisely don’t reveal all of Felix’s dark and twisted secrets right up front.  Instead, they exude an uncommon patience for allowing the details to unfold slowly and meticulously.  The more we invest in the film the more facts we begin to learn about Felix,  until finally it all culminates in the funeral party itself where we do discover why Felix exiled himself for a lifetime.  The essence of the story and the manner with which it unfolds is as enigmatic as the Felix character himself: he is a cipher to just about all those around him, so it’s crucial for the narrative that he remain so to the audience as well.  The dialogue itself is sort of masterful not only for how sparse and economical it is with its choice of words, but also for how it simultaneously manages to speak volumes about the personas and the human condition.


The film was directed by Aaron Schneider, a Short-Subject Oscar-winning director making his feature film debut and it is a highly auspicious one at that.  Not only does he show himself as a real seasoned pro at harnessing the film's disparaging tonal range of hearty laughs mixed with anguished pathos, but he also creates a lush screen canvas of minimalist, bucolic wonders.  Filmed largely in Georgia and with aid from cinematographer David Boyd, Schneider manages to create both a handsome and at times hauntingly atmospheric sense of time of mood while fostering a vivid sense of immediacy with its Depression-era locations.  GET LOW has a painterly eye for detail, but it is never aesthetically ostentatious: There are compositions and camera moves that have a spontaneity as well as a sense of painstaking choreography.  The look of GET LOW, much like its underlining story, kind of discretely and subconsciously sneaks up on viewers.  

For as exquisite as the film is to engage and behold, GET LOW is a superlative highlight reel featuring a quintet of performances that never once overreach nor do they ever hit a false and inauthentic note.  Duvall, as mentioned, creates a person with an unpredictable and wily edge, but then later makes him a compassionate and touching figure of soft spoken remorse and shame (the climatic “big speech” monologue he gives could have been one rife with shameful and sanctimoniously phony sentimentality and clichés, but to watch a master like Duval cultivate it with delicate pauses and a gravel-voiced and gruff inflection, it becomes a genuine heartrending and desperate plea for forgiveness and understanding.  To see it is to see a legendary actor utterly command and own a scene. 

Murray himself is as deliciously dry and endearingly mannered as ever: has there ever been an actor that has made selfish two-time hustlers so innately likeable?  With his pencil thin moustache, finely tailored appearance, a penchant for his whiskey flask, and a detachment from his clients that’s eerily hilarious, Frank emerges as a smarmy, but engaging and inviting persona within the film, handled with just the right subtle authority from Murray.  Just watch how the actor sells phrases like “hermit money” with a capriciously monotone enunciation for large chuckles.  He also utters one of the funniest zingers in many a moon.  When asked by his partner whether he can pull off Felix’s strange funeral request, Murray smoothly lashes out, “I sold 26 of the ugliest cars in the middle of December with the wind blowing so far up my ass I was farting snowflakes into July.”  Nice.

The other three performances are arguably the trickiest and the more thankless:  Sissy Spacek is heartrendingly believable as a woman that shares a part of Felix’s appalling past that finds herself with mixed feelings as to whether to love the man or condemn him; Bill Cobbs has a gentle and sweet disposition as the pastor that masks his icy denunciation of Felix's unwillingness to beg God for mercy; and Lucas Black does a terrific job of crafting a calm, natural, and dialed-in performance to make his character feel like a tangible innocent caught between the world of his lecherous boss and his crazed client.  All of the actors in tandem are uniformly stellar, alongside Schneider’s keenly observational direction that allows the character dynamics and story mysteries to simmer.   GET LOW is one of those rare comedies with a sobering, touching, and melancholic underbite: it generates many laughs alongside its themes of repenting for one’s dastardly sins and, in turn, begging for forgiveness and redemption.  Few films, especially from feature film novice directors, are able to mould all of these elements together to create a homogenized whole.

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